God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics Is Bad for Both
In the wake of the Great Recession it would seem natural that the 2012 election would be fought over economic issues. Yet so far in the Republican primaries, we have seen social issues, and religion especially, move to the forefront. Rick Santorum is only the latest in a series of Republicans who have infused their campaigns with talk about God. Even Mitt Romney, a Mormon who has generally tried to avoid discussing religion, has recently pledged to defend “religious liberty” against the Obama administration. Increasingly, the rhetoric of the leading Republican contenders echoes the Republican fringe of twenty years ago. Then, we heard Pat Buchanan — the quintessential protest candidate — bombastically declare that America was in the midst of a culture war. Today, the frontrunners all play to the Republican base by describing the White House’s “war on religion.”
Deepening the mystery of the GOP’s turn to God is the emergence of the Tea Party, which ostensibly formed to shrink government with a relentless focus on fiscal issues.
What gives? A careful look at the trends in our politics over the last generation, including the rise of the Tea Party, solves the religion riddle. Not only have the Democratic and Republican parties been increasingly separated by a “God gap,” but our data clearly show that Tea Party supporters sprang from the ranks of the Religious Right — conservatives who advocate a fusion, rather than a separation, of church and state. Tea Partiers are thus the natural constituency for a culture warrior like Rick Santorum. They are fiscal conservatives, but religious issues really resonate.
Time will tell whether all this God talk will be good for the Republicans in November — we suspect not. Tea Party supporters constitute the most energized part of the Republican base and roughly two thirds of the primary electorate. However, they constitute barely a quarter of the November electorate and are reviled by much of the rest. While the Republican base has become ever more committed to mixing religion and politics, the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction.
Whatever the tactical consequences may be in the short-term politically, the intertwining of religion and partisan politics has longer-term implications as well. When the otherwise prophetic voice of religion is reduced to partisanship, it impoverishes American politics. Political progressives and moderates are increasingly leaving the religious ranks, as it has become synonymous in the public mind with right-wing politics. As we argued in the magazine (below), mixing God and Caesar turns out to be bad for both.